Racial Profiling and the Harvard Professor

HandshakeHarvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a scholar of African American history, had just returned home from a trip when he had difficulty getting into his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A neighbor who happened to see two men trying to barge through the front door of the professor’s home—the two happened to be Gates and his taxi driver—called 9-1-1 to report that a break-in might be in progress. After local police arrived on the scene to investigate, an argument occurred in which, according to a police spokesperson, “cooler heads did not prevail.” The police report says Gates shouted and accused the officer of treating him as a suspect just because he was a black man. Gates was arrested on his own front porch.

Understandably upset, Gates publicly insisted that his arrest was an instance of racial profiling. Charges of disorderly conduct were soon dropped, however, and closer examination of the incident suggests that, contrary to what many first thought, it doesn’t quite fit the profile of a racial profiling case. In fact, the arresting officer had himself taught a class for police recruits on the subject of racial profiling.

At a press conference, President Barack Obama was asked about the incident. Obama reminded his audience: “What I think we know separate and apart from this incident—is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that’s just a fact.”

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